Tuesday, June 29, 2010

end of term

Chile lost to Brazil, which everyone expected, though I think people were hoping for better than 3-0. The U.S. lost to Ghana 2-1, which my students try to make fun of me for, and they again have trouble interpreting when I say the U.S. team played really badly.

This week I will have taught exactly one class, which was Tuesday: Monday was a holiday, the first class yesterday was finishing up giving my test, and for the rest of the week, they'll be taking Marcela's test, except for one class tomorrow which has to finish my test. Next week is the week before winter vacation, so I'm guessing concentration won't be high.

It's just as well. I am crabby and irritable from trying to get any kind of aikido training going, and I can use the vacation. The weekend of the 10th I'll be down in
Termas de Chillán with the WorldTeach gang, and then to Easter Island for a couple days, and then to Mendoza, Argentina, to drink coffee and eat steak. (I hear it's pretty, too. And cheap. Did I mention the steak?) The final weekend of break I'll be in Santiago, doing an aikido seminar and drinking with the July WorldTeach volunteers after telling them whatever plausible lies I can think of about the place they've committed to for four months.
  • "Yeah, I shake a recluse spider out of my shoes about twice a week."
  • "We haven't had a 7.0 earthquake since...what, Monday? Pretty rare."
  • "Just be careful about what you say. Chilean host families often expect volunteers to marry their eldest eligible child."
For some reason, I was never on the list to do Admissions tours in college, either.

okay, now I'm frustrated

Despite all the warnings, I haven't found Chile too frustrating, but now that I'm genuinely discouraged about aikido opportunities, I think my prior lack of frustration just indicates how much less important everything else is than aikido.

First of all, I don't particularly want to teach at this point. I can, I've done it a little bit, and I enjoy it and I seem to be pretty good at it, but I have very little experience, and a very low rank for an instructor; recall that I got my black belt (1st dan) in December, whereas a fuller teaching rank (3rd or 4th dan) usually goes to people who have had their black belt for a decade or two. I found this hippie institute called GFU, and they normally have aikido, but it's suspended until the teachers get re-certified by Aikikai Chile. Okay, maybe I can take over those classes until they come back? Or do a new class?

In order for me to teach at GFU, I have to be certified. By who? Well, it doesn't seem to matter, so maybe I can get a letter from my teachers and my association, even though we don't do that sort of thing. It feels really awkward just to ask, but I do. There's all kinds of stuff to consider for them: before I left, they said I could teach basic classes if that came up, but it's a whole other thing to write a letter saying I'm actually trained to teach, especially when I'm off in another country, with a different association, and mixing in with other teachers, of unknown rank. They'd be accepting reputational responsibility for me; is there any legal responsibility? And I'm not actually trained to teach, so I don't like trying to get a letter saying I am, even if it's a formality to satisfy a bureaucratic need.

Of course, it's entirely possible that a certification from a U.S. association is insufficient (somehow this is for the Chilean police, I don't know why), in which case I'd have to try and get the certification honored by a Chilean association, which would kill the whole project, because:
  1. My aikido association has no relationship with Aikikai Chile.
  2. Aikikai Chile wouldn't give a teaching certification to someone of my rank and experience.
  3. No one is going to try to persuade Aikikai Chile that they should certify me. (No one will offer, and I won't allow it.)
If I do get sufficiently certified, it becomes this whole thing with GFU where they have to promote the class, and what do you mean I don't have any students?

What the fuck, you know? I don't really give a shit about any of this. I just want to practice aikido, with people who aren't condescending dogmatists, someplace less than 2.5 hours from my house.


Monday, June 28, 2010

back in the old days

At Danger, we had a team of about thirteen people, each responsible for one or two different servers. All the servers running together is called a "service", which provides all the functionality for the Sidekick: data storage, instant messaging, web browsing, email, etc.

Keeping all of these things working in sync is, as we geeks say, "nontrivial." Bugs internal to each server--say my data server is crashing if it gets too much data--are compounded by bugs in how the servers interact: I fixed my data server problem, but now it outputs data slightly differently and the mail server can't handle it. It starts out looking like a mail server bug, but in reality it's a bug in the communication between the two servers. The sane way to manage this problem is to put your code through constant functionality and interoperability testing, releasing it as often as you can (iteration) and always putting all the parts together (continuous integration). So every day we "rolled" the previous day's code out to a developer service that all the engineers and most of the other tech staff used, called "Daily". Because we used it, we usually noticed immediately if it was broken and we were responsible for fixing it.

One rainy day in my first year, I meandered into the office at my usual early hour, about 8 A.M., and ran into another Chris, the head of IT, who informed me that the network was down on the engineering floor, due to flooding in the network closet.
This was a three-story building. "We're having a flood on the second floor?"

"Yeah, leaking through the HVAC vents. Water was cascading down the equipment rack, it was great. There's a tarp over it now, we'll see if it dries out okay."

"A tarp."

Only TJ was in the office. TJ is, to put it mildly, a diligent worker, and yet there he was in the corridor, not working.
"Hey, TJ."

"Daily's down. I would have sent email, but, well, Daily's down."
We investigated. Daily shouldn't have been down, because (we thought) Daily's machines were in the nice, dry server room on the first floor. We'd worked really hard to make Daily be reliable in that way. And it was mostly true.

The team had a double cubicle partitioned off, with a couch and a wheeled shelf/drawer converted to a liquor cabinet, and a coffee table of sorts, with legs made of two standard beige-box computers, x86-a and x86-b. In the old office, both had been damaged by hallway soccer years earlier, and we assumed they were both turned off, though we couldn't actually tell because the power lights were broken and we were too lazy to check the fans in back.

As it happened, x86-a had a shared drive, containing...the Oracle database libraries. Which were needed by the data server. Which was running in the first-floor server room. Which couldn't talk to x86-a, which was up on the second floor, with its flooded network closet.

TJ and I got out a deck of cards and played Hearts for an hour or so until things were fixed.

Computers are hard.

travel tip: power adapters

Appliances I brought to use in Chile's 240V power outlets:
  • electric shaver
  • netbook computer
  • battery charger
Number of 240V->120V power transformers I use:
  • none
My battery charger cost all of US$7 and it auto-switches, so apparently sometime in the past 15 years, someone figured out how to make cheap, lightweight auto-switching power supplies.

To figure out if your adapter auto-switches, read it! It should have a line that says "INPUT," followed by "120VAC," and if it also says "240VAC," you're all set, you just need a plug adapter.

for a fellow traveler

Katie is coming to Chile with WorldTeach next month, and she said nice things about the blog and asked if I had any advice for coming. I'm sure this blog has dozens, if not hundreds, of readers who will be or are considering teaching English in Chile, and as the saying goes, "Brevity is for other people," so I thought I'd make my response into an entry.

First, for packing, I've found it's nice to have both medium- and heavy-weight long underwear tops and bottoms. My house is up a hill in Valparaiso, and it's usually 10 degrees colder inside than out. Places like Quilpue and (even more) Limache seem to be colder. For teaching, though, since I'm always moving around the room, I've only needed the mid-weight bottoms.

I've also found it useful to have copies of English In Action and Basic English Grammar, as guides for what to do with more advanced groups. The WorldTeach training focuses on the very basic level that's likely to take up most or all of your time. But some of us have gotten advanced groups, or a group that wants to learn more than they can in the regular classes, and since I have no ESL background, the books are great to see what experienced people think is a reasonable curriculum, and to draw on for ideas. You have some ESL experience, so of course if you've already got your groove on, go with it.

As for actually being here...

On the practical side, get a Bip! card for Santiago transit, and explore Santiago a bit. Cerro Santa Lucia and Cerro San Cristobal are both pretty. If you're wondering whether to try any Mexican food in Chile that isn't California Cantina in Santiago, the answer is probably "don't bother" unless someone recommends it who knows what Mexican food should taste like.

Most important is what Allyson phrased as "be liquid". I advocate that for everything, not just being in Chile, but it's apt here. Classes will be canceled, people will fail to tell you things you need to know, you'll have bad teaching days, the kids will have bad learning days. Also, you'll have awesome teaching days, good Spanish days, magical moments of churrasco and beer. Forget about what you think should happen (and those thoughts appear in odd places); approach everything with a listening, open heart and mind, and assume everyone is a good person who's doing the best they can, even if that doesn't seem to be very good.

Beyond that, I'm not sure what to say. Honestly, being here is like being anywhere else: people go to work, spend time with their families, buy groceries. The difference is that the volume of stuff that we don't know when we visit a new city in the U.S.--Where's the best coffee shop? What bus do I take? Where's that corncob palace I've always wanted to visit?--expands in previously unimagined ways, to include things like "Why doesn't this person understand when I say elementary things in Spanish?" and "Where do I buy a shoehorn?". Or, "Why is my host family serving me a full dinner, ten minutes after they watched me eat three choripán?". I often have no idea what's going on. I speak pretty good Spanish, I pay really close attention, and in my current setup, I still have no hope of understanding how decisions get made in my school or my host family, unless someone really explicitly lays it out for me (and what I'm told may or may not be the whole story).

In reality, this is true at home, too: we never know what the story is. If we're have a difficult time with someone, maybe they're having problems at home, maybe they feel threatened, maybe they're anxious. That not-knowing makes us free to drop our assumptions about what's happening--in fact, it makes that the only sane thing to do. Then we can engage with each moment as it happens, so that if we choose, in each unfolding moment we can release ourselves from everything that happened in the past. When I'm dealing with a difficult student, I can leave behind what I felt and did last time, and I can leave behind what they did last time, and for that moment, we can meet each other fresh and new, as if for the first time. Every encounter is a chance for a new beginning.

So we always have not-knowing. It's just that here, the things that we don't know are much more obvious. Take the opportunites to not-know.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

your dose of cute for the day

The dog is occasionally confused that the fawn does not want the ball.


We've heard repeatedly not to let Chileans cut our hair: we'd end up with a mullet or some other horrifying 80s artifact. John in Calama has decided not to cut his hair in Chile at all, describing the haircuts as "expensive and terrible, at best."

Now, I've had two haircuts here in Valparaiso: one was CH$2500 (less than US$5), and the other was CH$1900 (less than US$4), and the barber/stylist asked what I wanted, I told them, and they gave it to me, and I got haircuts identical to what I would get back home. Obviously, that's neither expensive nor terrible.

The only worthwhile caveats I can think of are that (1) I'm in civilization here in Valparaiso, and (2) all the warnings have come from either women, or men with long hair. I know that women's hair in particular requires this complicated treatment, where they need to go pay some multiple of $50, possibly driving an hour or more to just the right person, so it looks right and grows out well over the coming 3-6 months, mumble mumble mumble.

Current and former volunteers all talk about the dangers of getting a mullet from a Chilean barber. But seriously, how out of touch do you have to be for a barber to give you a mullet without you realizing it? If you don't like what they're doing, tell them to stop. I don't get it.

Saturday, June 26, 2010


I just had a 90-minute talk with 11-year old Alvaro, Ximena's youngest, who is not only adorable, but may be the house's best conversationalist, or at least he was this time. After I picked him up out of his chair and explained I was out of shape, I told him all about aikido and showed him my test video, described last night's incident, he talked about a windshield-smashing road-rage argument he saw at some point, and then we talked about the United States, which he'd like to visit. Things he was startled to learn:
  • He asked if "Springfield" really exists, so I explained they chose that name because almost every state has one.
  • No, if you're around the imaginary line of the United States and Canada, you might have a hard time telling which side you're on--some towns on either side share a library, for example.
  • Texas has almost the area of Chile, and Alaska has twice that.
  • Alaska was really cheap.
  • Despite having the sports teams he cares about, San Antonio, Cleveland, and Detroit are probably not the most awesome places in the U.S. to visit.
*heart* Kids are awesome, when you don't want to throttle them.

fear of technology

Trevor Maloney, one of not-very-many Zen priests in Houston, was bothered by a piece in the New York Times about the Singularity, the idea (with variations) that eventually we'll all upload ourselves into computers and, to quote the Heart Sutra, be "freed from all suffering and distress". Whatever.

The article and comments have a flavor of anti-technology-ism that I've always found strange, and grounded in a lack of understanding of what "technology" is and how it fits in the human experience, and underneath it all, some amount of fear that comes from the lack of understanding. My little brother felt the same way during his hippie phase, and I get it sometimes from the less-technical people in my sangha back home.

"Technology" is a catch-all term for the tools we humans make. Computers are technology, and so are steam engines, irrigation ditches, and the wheel. Not only do we make stuff, but we make stuff to help us make stuff. It's a big part of what we are as a species.

When I worked Tech Support in college, I learned that a lot of people view computers as some kind of alien artifact, and they abandon all common sense as though there were no point in trying. I wonder if it's similar to math anxiety, because I watched otherwise intelligent people behave as though they didn't understand that computers require electricity.

(I'm not joking. The first question on the phone is always "Is it plugged in and turned on?", and that comes from experience, not because we're trying to insult you. Any tech support story that you hear, where a user acts with a seemingly impossible stupidity? I guarantee it's real.)

Here is the deep, dark secret about computers:
They are exactly like your toaster.
They obey the same laws of physics, require electricity to operate, and have the same level of human consciousness and volition. They're not out to get you. They are not the source of the world's problems.

I'm particularly startled and saddened to see serious students of Buddhism indulge their technophobia, because a big part of the Buddhist premise is precisely that dukkha (dissatisfaction/discomfort/suffering) is a universal human experience, throughout time and across cultures: I think that once you understand what dukkha is, you can quickly find it wherever and whenever you have people. Furthermore, the responsibility for creating and ending our dukkha is ours alone. Saying that technology somehow makes it worse takes away some of our responsibility, and plays into our ever-present desire to imagine that our dukkha comes from external circumstances, and we can't possibly change it.

Now that I think of it, that temptation to dodge responsibility is so strong that I'll probably be ranting about this until I die.

Friday, June 25, 2010

making important decisions, quickly

I just went down the hill and had a very nice beer, at some random bar that was apparently one of the few things Pinochet didn't confiscate from one of his opposing political parties. Warmed up a bit, I walked for about 5 minutes, and then caught a colectivo--lucky me, it was empty and I got the front seat.

We got to the next major stop (Bella Vista), when the driver and I were both startled by someone opening the back door and hurtling themselves into the car. He was extremely distraught, shouting and upset, and seemed to be yelling at the driver to GO GO GO, like something out of a movie.

Then there's more shouting, the driver shouting at the guy to get out of the car, and then more guys coming up to the car and...dragging the first guy out of the car by his hair. And repeatedly punching him in the head in the process.

They got him out onto the street and kept beating on him. The driver got out of the car with a billy club; I got out of the car to try and assess what was happening, because my instinct was to stop them beating the crap out of the guy. There were three of them, they were angry, and no one in the crowd was stopping them. Those are bad signs for getting involved.

Then someone behind me shouted "Close the door!" and tried to close the colectivo door on me and get past the car. So, on top of being slightly tipsy, now we have:
  • A group of angry strong guys really intent on beating up this one guy.
  • A small crowd of onlookers letting it happen.
  • An unknown number of people behind me, willing to close a car door on me, pretty hard.
  • I cannot understand any of what people are shouting about the situation.
I got back in the car and closed the door.

I thought for a while about how that all went down. It was interesting to watch myself decide I'd done the right thing. That's always an awfully appealing conclusion for anything, and deserves a lot of scrutiny.

When we drove away, I looked back, and they'd stopped kicking the guy on the ground, and let him get up onto his knees--the beating part seemed to have stopped.

The driver described the situation to another driver at a stoplight, and they both laughed, which was a little puzzling.

So I asked the driver why they were beating the guy up, and he said the guy had been stealing.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

go read more of his essays

I periodically sing the praises of Maciej Cegłowski's Idle Words, because he's just that great a writer. Here, from his post about Torres del Paine, a park down south--

Did I say "south"? I meant "Go south until you reach the middle of nowhere, then keep going for another day or two"...
On the Chilean side, there is a very serious man in a jacket reading DETECTIVE who peers at your passport and then sends you to the inspection table. Here condor-eyed agricultural inspectors search your bags for the slightest trace of forbidden fruit or meat. The search is thorough but strangely limited to what you physically bring with you into the building. Apparently the Chilean border service cannot conceive of a criminal mind so devious it would think to leave contraband on the bus.
His most recent post, "An Annotated Letter From Roman Polanski," is sad, but a really good exposition of the case, with his trademark sharp writing.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

test week

I had been thinking about giving the kids a grade for my class, when one day Marcela told me that she needed one. I'm not sure where that comes from--I think the Ministry contract says I don't have to give tests, it or at least releases me from grading (which is a good idea, since we can't grok the educational culture here). But they've worked pretty hard, and I wanted both them and me to know what they've really learned. I decided to spend last week reviewing what each class has done, and then this week would be oral tests.

They've been doing great! On a 10-scale, so far the class averages are between 8.2 and 9.3, with just a fewkids really crashing and burning. For some of those, I think they're convinced they can't learn, so they didn't study; others speak a very tangled Spanish dialect, what Chileans associate with low levels of education and call los rotos ("the broken ones"), and that seems to really hinder their ability to remember and produce English sounds.

In general, though, I gave them a week's warning, told them exactly what material they were responsible for, reviewed it with them, and they studied and retained most to all of it. Some things I've noticed:

  • A few of them have come in and said "Eh, yo no sé nada" ("I don't know anything"), and then proceeded to get excellent scores.
  • It's really disconcerting to sit down one-on-one and not really recognize a student. Most of them I do recognize, but I have about 270 students and I see them once a week or less, for an hour. In particular, they're almost all girls, and a lot of them are very quiet.
  • The way I relate to each student when we're sitting across from each other confirms that I've kept the discipline stuff from feeling personal to them. Any time I write their names on the board to get them to shut up, 60 seconds later I'm helping them pronounce something as though nothing had happened, and they notice that.
  • This is exhausting. Sitting down for 90 minutes of one-on-one meetings, where I have to smile and help them relax while simultaneously judging their performance in a way that affects their lives, is actually much more tiring than moving around the classroom for 60 minutes teaching.
I'm also pretty sure I hate giving tests, but it really focused their attention and effort, and now I and we both know what they know. I'm not sure how else to really assess them, without talking to them alone individually, and with that little extra pressure that gives them a reason to care besides the joy of the intellectual endeavor. Which I wouldn't buy into either, if I were them and I had nine other subjects where I did have to keep my grades up.

After this week, all the grades have to be in, so I think there's just a lame-duck few weeks before winter vacation. It's probably time for lessons involving dancing.

at least I amuse myself

For our upcoming newsletter, Heather just asked me what my favorite chilenismos are. Since I'm bad at lists, I came up short, except for this:

  • al tiro - "right away," "sometime in the coming 5 minutes," or "I'm saying 'al tiro' to humor you but it would be rude to say so explicitly".
I think I'm way funnier than any of the volunteer material I saw before I came here.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

buttons being pressed

There's a Bay Area community that I'm sort of on the edge of, one of many groups I met through Rachel and JD. They're a bit older than me and I missed out on the serious bonding years, but we like each other well enough and I stay on the mailing list.

Recently, one guy, who I've never met, started spewing venom at people, in a disproportionate response to a forwarded roommate ad that was looking for an artistic female to share an apartment with. It was clear he was speaking from a lot of built-up anger about his life as a black man, but since these people have been his friends for many years, and were giving him every opportunity to tone down his languge and try to be heard without being a complete jerk, he seemed to be in considerable mental distress. I sent him a private email pointing out that people were trying to be nice to him, and he said I didn't "get it". Then he sent a vague, mental-illness-laden email to the list about how he was on his higher plane of understanding, invoking Discordianism, The Illuminatus! Trilogy, and Charles Manson to justify using what he saw as "crazy wisdom" to try and enlighten this group of people. I would have stayed out entirely, but it turns out I have a raw nerve that will not be ignored.
"Doesn't anyone have zen/aikido training?"
Yeah. Once you use my two favorite things to justify being a rampant jerk, you've apparently crossed a line I won't tolerate.

I worked on the response about as long as I normally work on a blog post, so I'll just drop it on you wholesale, including quoted parts of his original message.

> of course I "love everyone"

Actions, in this case courtesy towards people who are trying to be nice to
you, would make this credible.

> i Once say a interview show with Charlie Manson and he said:Pain is great!
> Pain teaches you things!
> get it?

I'm not sure Charles Manson is a great role model.

Everything teaches us. Pain isn't privileged in that respect.

> Doesn't anyone have zen/aikido training?

I have many years of both. Given their focus on caring and respect for, and clear communication with, other people, I think you're misinterpreting something. It's not about "I want to do this technique, how do I apply it to this situation"; that's seeing everything as a nail because all you've got is a hammer.

The practice of both Buddhism and aikido is "What is the *appropriate* response to this situation?". How can I change what *I'm* doing, to help people communicate, to increase understanding and caring among people, to encourage harmonious relationships? How can I set aside what I think should happen, how I think people should perceive me, all of those things that are about ME ME ME--how can *I* adapt my response to the *situation*? Rather than trying to arrange people and events the way I want, how can I set my wants and desires aside and really connect and respond to what's happening right now?

The way you've been trying to talk to this community didn't work for me 20 years ago, and it's not working for you now.

Are you willing to set aside your ideas of how you think the conversation should go, and adapt your response to the situation? To the reality that people are not understanding what you're trying to do, and they're not reacting the way you want?

If not, I would suggest that your ideas about how this conversation should go are more important than the relationships with the people who are feeling hurt and angered by how you're talking. That's a valid choice, if a different one than I would make; but I think it's not honest to listen to a bunch of people saying "You're saying hurtful things" and insist that you're actually spreading love and understanding.


We all have our raw nerves, I guess.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

the story of the aikido mafia

You might recall that the YMCA here in Valparaíso got bullied into canceling their aikido class some years ago, when Aikikai Chile came around and demanded a bunch of money, and control over how it was taught. Plus I did find a place in Valparaíso that offers aikido classes, but they're on hiatus right now until the teachers get re-certified...by Aikikai Chile. (I'm going to stop by and see if I can be a substitute teacher and we just won't tell anyone.)

Today I visited the Santiago dojo again and asked the teacher if they have any deal or business with Aikikai Chile. I told him the story of the Y, and the suspended class here in town.

"No, we don't talk to them at all."
"Why not?"
"Well, we're very strong here. They know we have a strong practice and a strong lineage. But I think I know who the Y's director talked to, and that's definitely how he operates. And some random little club probably doesn't have the strength or resources to argue with him."

The story is interesting, complicated, sad, and completely Chilean:

The guy who spoke to the Y was JR. He was, for many years, the head of Aikikai Chile, but much more than that, during the dictatorship, he was the only person in all of Chile authorized by the government to teach aikido. Anyone who wanted to teach had to go through him. So his mindset can be, kindly put, monopolistic. I imagine Aikikai Chile tells itself some story about maintaining the quality of instruction or something, but the Y's director said JR was running a business, and if you're really just interested in quality, large sums of money aren't really required. The teacher I spoke to didn't doubt that they have "aikido" registered as a trademark, but it seems they enforce it selectively.

Things have changed a lot: there are now many dojos like the one I visited, that operate outside Aikikai Chile, affiliating directly with organizations in Japan. There's just a ways to go.
It's a sad and ugly thing. O-Sensei saw aikido as a way to bring people together, to help us learn to resolve conflict peacefully, and thought that spreading aikido was the way to make the world a better place.

I'm constantly shocked by how much damage the dictatorship did here, the extent to which it poisoned everything. In theory, you can see why a military junta would want to control the teaching of martial arts, but the reality is that the military junta controlled just about everything, indiscriminately. Sometimes it feels like any place you scratch the surface in Chilean society, you can find some kind of sad wreckage from those two decades.

[EDIT: I'm a little uneasy about the tone of this post's title. I don't actually know anyone at Aikikai Chile, and while the odds are low that anyone involved will ever read this, I don't want to start a fight. I'll leave it in place, but hey, if anyone who has a real connection to aikido in Chile sees this, leave something in the comments. I'd like to hear more of the story, especially any parts I've got wrong.]

heck if I know

We humans are pattern-finding machines. This has obvious survival advantages, but we're so good at it that we find patterns even where they don't exist, like the Bible Code, conspiracy theories, and intelligent design. At Tassajara, in the winter a creek runs almost outside the zendo, and apparently during the practice period, as you're sitting 9 times a day, you start to hear voices in the creek. That sort of thing.

This leads us to strange competencies. My favorite story: one day at my first house in Redwood City, I was chatting with the mail carrier. Suddenly the dog next door barked.

"Ooh. Rottweiler."
The dog barked again.
"Oooh. Big one."

I can't recognize a 100-pound dog from its bark, but I have similarly arcane fine-grained judgement in other things, like software, aikido, and people's faces.

Naturally, that kind of judgement exists for teaching of all kinds: it's legendary in Zen teaching, to the point of myth, but classroom teachers develop it, too. Good classroom teachers seem able to see where the students are learning and where they need help, how to best handle student disruptions, what they can say or do to move the enterprise in the right direction.

On the eve of giving my kids an oral test, I don't feel like I've got much of that sense. I see each group once a week for an hour, and after two months, I'm basically hoping they can remember a list of body parts, a few moods like "happy" and "sad," and introductions. How well do they know it? How could I respond to them in more helpful ways?

I have no idea. I kind of have to settle for letting them know that I care about them, and that I think they can learn and I want them to do so.

Then again, maybe that's not "settling."

Thursday, June 17, 2010


When Field Director Allyson observed my class last month, she recommended that I crack down on the discipline a bit, pointing out that I'm nice and patient and all, but that the class as a whole would be better served, and I would have an easier time, if the disruptive kids got a smackdown. I started the next day, and it's been a good change, but there's been an element missing in the conversation, where I haven't been able to clearly communicate how seriously I'm taking the situation. Part of this is my habit of treating people with kindness and patience, but in challenging situations, I'm also really good about communicating clearly, using...words. My normal methods of conflict resolution are a bit too subtle when dealing with young teenagers across language and cultural barriers.

Also, it's not really conflict resolution, because I'm in charge and they're disrupting the class in ways they know cause problems: they're smart kids, and every week I write their names on the board to warn them that they're on their way to getting sent to the Inspectors.

Two weekends ago I was looking ahead at the students I was most likely to kick out of class (having exhausted my considerable patience), and just imagining what that looked like. What's the expression on my face? What do I do with my voice? How do I deliver the message that will cut off the inevitable whining and trying to negotiate?

Well, I could get angry, just for a moment, and let it come through my face and voice and body, and then let it go. Right?

I don't feel like I've made a deep study of anger like my teacher has, because I spent my time on the weak end of the spectrum, with occasional irritation, annoyance, and frustration, so normally I just notice how I feel, look at why I feel that way, let it go, and move. The flashes of powerful emotion most of us associate with anger are rare for me; and to express it with a raised voice rarer still, and physical aggression from me, nearly unknown.

(I came close early this year with an aikido friend who was way out of bounds during training, and then last year at Chillits. I don't want to sound like a saint: though my actions are pretty well-considered, I have of plenty of stuff I deal with internally. But anger isn't usually my big problem.)

Using anger on purpose, to teach or communicate, is like starting your barbecue with a lot of gasoline: yes, it can work, but you need to know exactly what you're doing and why, and even then, your food might taste kinda funny.

You have to pay close attention to what's happening in your audience, which I knew...but you have to pay close attention to what's happening in you, which came as a surprise.

Anger, it turns out, is a little sticky, and leaves a residue, like peeling off duct tape. Our minds, our sense of self, the buffers between ourselves and direct perception of the world, are made up of patterns of thought. Generally we develop those patterns unconsciously, but with practice, we can start...messing with who we are. With awareness and attention, we can change our patterns of thought. I can remind myself that other people have a lot of stuff going on, and I should be gentle and open with them, instead of making up some story about their motivations and reacting to my own story. Every time I make that choice, my habit of being gentle gets a little stronger.

Every time I make a choice to display anger, my habit of feeling angry gets a little stronger. This is especially noticeable, and unpleasant, because I don't have a big habit of feeling angry.


the World Cup

Chile won! 1-0 against Honduras. It was a good game, where by "good" we mean "Honduras put up a little fight but Chile dominated control of the ball the entire time."

Classes are canceled for the first and final games, and any time Chile is playing, so yesterday morning, instead of getting up at 6:15 and going into school, I got to sleep in, watch the game in bed, sleep some more, get up, have a leisurely breakfast, and watch the rest of the game. The U.S. could learn from this, if there was anything we cared about as much as Chileans care about soccer.

This week we've just been doing review for the oral test next week, and it's interesting to see the effect on their focus of us having conversation in Spanish, instead of me using limited English with lots of modeling, and them trying to understand. (The effect is "bad," for what it's worth.) The students have been asking me three questions:

1. Did I see the U.S. tie England?

They say "tie" [empatar] a certain way; if not disdain, then definitely a decided lack of prestige. Yes, I did watch the game, but I didn't think the U.S. played very well, except for our goalie. Acknowledging that my country's team played poorly seems to baffle them. I think they wanted to have a sort of "yo momma" back-and-forth about it.

2. Am I rooting for Chile? [I'm not sure how fanatic this implies I should be.]

Duh, of course.

3. Who do I support if the U.S. and Chile make the final?

Since I'm trying to communicate, I can't say "I don't really care that much"; I might as well respond with "Yes, I love tuna melts more than I love my girlfriend." (I don't like tuna melts, and they don't know what a tuna melt is.) They would sense that something weird was happening, but they wouldn't get what.

Only slightly less startling was the other honest-but-dodging answer: "It's not going to happen. The U.S. is going to lose."

Here's someone, their teacher, of all people, seemingly in full command of his faculties, saying...his country's team not only didn't play very well, but is going to lose?! In the World Cup? This just isn't done, I think.
Everyone chalks up my lack of crazed enthusiasm to being American, which isn't inaccurate; but I can't explain to them, any more than I can explain to sports fans in the States, that I just don't care about televised sports that much.

Remember: just because you're speaking the same language doesn't mean you're communicating.

a worthy anecdote for third-hand blogging

From Anne Schwartz, via Dan Meyer (who adds light commentary and his blog is prettier):

student: why do you want to be a teacher ms. schwartz?
me: have you meet you? you're awesome. i get to hang out with kids like you all day!
student: okay but why do other teachers want to be teachers?
me: probably for the same reason, because kids are awesome.
student: that's not true. you're the only teacher i have who likes us.
That's awesome. And sad. And awesome. And sad. And awesome.

I'm glad my kids know I like them. And they like me, or at least if there are any who don't, they're quiet about it. I do have to admit that "hanging out with 14-year olds" was not on my list of why I wanted to teach. I originally signed up to teach adults, because I thought it'd be more manageable (and I was probably right). Then again, I guess to decide that I'm going to teach kids really is signing up to hang out with them all day.

Some parts of this project I thought through really well. Others, not so much.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

that sucks. what can we learn?

A couple of volunteers up north got rolled by a group of teenagers.

There are maybe a few things that could have been done differently here.
  • Don't go wandering around a strange city late at night.
  • If you do, don't ask a crowd of teenagers for directions. (Anna's a big fan of this. I might or might not depending on the situation and how dodgy they looked. I sort of imagine I might have passed in this case.)
  • If you ask a crowd of teenagers for directions, don't just turn your back to them and walk away. (I definitely wouldn't do that. When I'm walking around alone, I pay attention to everyone I can see, and make sure I know where they are.)
And if you're not caught too much by surprise, there are other options if you have some training in handling physical conflict.

It's always important not to blame the victim when something bad happens (and I'm glad John and Ryan weren't more badly hurt than scrapes and minor concussions), but it's also always important to look at the steps leading up to the bad thing, and learn where we could have done something different to avoid it, so we can avoid it in the future...

nunchuks, weapon of hilarity

Bruce re-posted this classic on Facebook:

Which gave me this delicious related video:

And then this one, to remind us that it's difficult even for experts:

Makes a gun look safe, doesn't it?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

martial arts excursion: judo

The same place that has capoeira, the Engineering building of the Pontifical Universidad Catolica de Valparaíso (PUCV, but everyone calls it "La Catolica," because wouldn't you?) also has judo on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, and that was tonight's choice.

Like aikido and ninjutsu (and kendo), judo is also a gendai budo from Japan, the ancient battlefield art of jujitsu turned into something you can practice at full speed without killing your partners. My aikido teacher, Frank Doran Shihan, studied it for several years before and after he started aikido; in fact, he taught it to Marines at the Hand-to-Hand Combat Center in the fifties. Every now and again he'll pull out a judo move in the middle of aikido class, which of course catches us completely off guard and we usually feel lucky if we take the fall safely.

The judo people are really nice. They do an hour or so of intensive conditioning work first, which is where I discovered that while my aerobic conditioning is holding up okay, my arms and whatever muscles you use for sit-ups have very little endurance. Unlike the ninjutsu teacher, they view aikido as a valid martial art: the teacher reminded me before class that I couldn't do wrist locks.

I'm not sure I learned any judo, though. Much like ninjutsu, the flow of the class seems geared toward people who already know what they're doing, although there was more time to practice the individual exercises. It's fascinatingly different from aikido: the timing is all different, the way people move when you try to do something is different. I couldn't take anyone's balance, but they had a reasonably hard time taking mine, too, since it turns out moving around and keeping my footing is something I can do, even with people trained in tripping you up.

I may or may not go back. The conditioning is pretty difficult, and I'm not crazy in love with the art. (I've discovered in all this that I don't really like martial arts in general: I like aikido in particular.) The falls are fairly high-impact, at least for a beginner, and especially when there's not a sprung floor under the mats, just concrete. And that's with my years of falling experience, but they're different enough falls to make it difficult.

I did find an aikido place, here in Valparaíso! Good thing I called ahead, though, because it's suspended indefinitely until the instructors get re-certified or something, which corroborates the story from the Y about Aikikai Chile ruling everything with an iron fist, even if it means quashing the growth of the art here. I'm sure they have a story about instructor quality and everything, but the Y's story involved control, and a large sum of money, so I'm not inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. Next time I'm at Aikido Hakusan, I'll ask Manuel about it, since he surely has to deal with them.

At any rate, a good night of exercise with excellent people.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

aikido, soccer, beer, nachos

After going to bed at 2 A.M. after the birthday party, yesterday I woke up and got myself (late) to the bus station to go to Santiago for the day, to visit Aikido Hakusan again, and then meet up with Steve (who lives in my house), Field Director Allyson, and Jessie, a volunteer from last year.

We watched the England vs. U.S. World Cup game at California Cantina, seemingly along with every white person in Santiago. There were a bunch of families with young kids, and hordes of high school and college-age kids. Who the hell are these people? Foreign exchange students, expats and their children?

The game was all right. The American goal came from the English goalie screwing up and not getting a good grip. The sheer awesomeness of our goalie is the only reason we didn't lose 8-1: the U.S. was on hard-pressed defense for about 2/3 of the game. Supposedly we took 12 shots to England's 18, but that doesn't count the ball being in our end of the field most of the time. It was sad.

Then we ate pizza, then coffee and chocolate cake, and then I rested at their apartment for a little bit before heading back and walking into the house at around 11 P.M.

Oh, but the aikido. I love aikido. I haven't trained since the bad dojo experience in April, and I think I lost track of how much I missed it, until I went back to Aikido Hakusan. The people train with joy, and I got to be a black belt again, and play with people, and help people and learn from people. I got to do that unspoken "I'm messing with you" thing that we do, which takes on an extra-special flavor among people with more experience. The head teacher, Manuel Ruiz, is awesome, and because the dojo is in the lineage of Yoshinobu Takeda, he knows Jane and Neville from Aikido West, I guess from training together in Japan.

I don't really have the words for it. It was perfect, and hopefully I can go back a couple times a month.

at least it was funny

I was invited to a Chilean birthday party on Friday night, for Marilyn, an English teacher at my school. It was supposed to start at 9, but due to a, erm, urgent household discussion that didn't involve me, we didn't leave until after 10. It was supposedly "very far," but I forgot that means different things to Chileans and Americans: it was maybe 35 minutes away.

We all needed to stop and get presents, which I figured were just normal house presents for when you go visiting, modified for the hostess's inability to drink or eat chocolate (the usual choices). Ximena and I both got inexpensive perfume.

After midnight it was time to open the presents, and I was a little embarrassed because they were obviously supposed to be birthday presents, not house presents.

Then Marilyn opened the gift from one of the teachers at our school, and it was...inexpensive perfume. Ximena was sort of looking around, and Oscar, who is wonderfully expressive, sunk down a bit behind the collar of his coat. Obviously, we were all hoping she at least wouldn't open all of our presents in sequence.

But no, then Marilyn opened Ximena's perfume, and that was kind of funny.

Then she opened mine as I looked on sheepishly, and luckily, she got lost in spasms of laughter for a few minutes. Doh.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

coming soon: school stoppage

There's usually at least one teacher strike every year. Normally these focus on two things:

  • Paying the current crop of teachers more money.
  • Honoring a payment promise made 20-30 years ago, to what are now older teachers. (The theory being that if they let the government break one promise, the government will then feel free to break others.)
These are fine causes, the first is pretty normal, the second is a little esoteric. However, today the teachers' union at my school left these mini-flyers out, which looked like this:

Did you know?

The current government is destroying the last remains of public education:

  • The General Education Law that enshrines profit in education. [consagra el lucro en educacion--I'm not sure how to translate that.]
  • The Project to Assure School Quality, which will create schools in first, second, third, and fourth classes.
  • The Teachers' Professional Career, created by the Ministry of Education without the involvement of the teachers, which leaves us completely defenseless as workers.
  • Extension of the school day until 8 P.M. [N.B.: The day starts at 8 A.M.]

For a quality public education, secular, pluralist, and democratic, for ALL the children of Chile.

Those are the proposals President Pinera laid out in his speech to Congress on May 21st. Pretty grim, huh? Trying to further break an already broken system. It's worthy of Republicans.

A flyer like this naturally looks like a way to rile and educate the membership about an upcoming strike, and inquiries reveal that to be the case. They're having the necessary meetings now, and the guess I heard was that it will happen in July sometime.

I asked if the union had any way to pressure the government besides strikes, and the answer was, "No, only strikes. Now the government doesn't listen to anything."

Volunteers: Any rumblings in your area? Keep your ears open.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

it's a big world

I had English Workshop today, which gets to be less of a train wreck every week. Beyond not knowing what to do with a small group of motivated learners (remember, I'm using all my mental resources to deal with teaching large, mostly disinterested classes), two of them can carry on a conversation, and two of them can't, which makes designing an activity challenging at best.

I do explain some stuff in Spanish instead of forcing the whole time to be English-only, and when I discovered that the students and I think the color "chestnut" are two very different things--they think it's a dark color in between brown and black--I explained to them how color perception is completely determined by culture. This is sort of abstract, but then I pulled out the reliable example of the Japanese color word that includes both blue and green.

Any day you can make teenagers' eyes go wide with astonishment is a good day.

beer o'clock

Not really, since I rarely drink. But G and H were both solid handfuls today: I did manage to guide them into getting work done, and I didn't finish the day stressed out so much as mentally tired, because I'm working very hard to meet reality where it is, and with these particular classes, "reality" is two dozen scattered high school freshmen. It's like the first time at the library when I worked with the very tall 7-year old with the VERY ACTIVE MIND AND THEN I MADE A PAPER AIRPLANE AND I LIKE PLAYING SOCCER THERE'S A ROCKET ON THAT BOOK HOW OLD ARE YOU?

When Field Director Allyson observed my class a few weeks ago, she recommended cracking down on discipline more, which I've been doing, and I think it's been worthwhile. Yesterday I booted two kids from B: one I've booted before, and apparently he won't be returning to my class, and another teacher said the other has already signed a contract to behave, so...I'm not sure either of them will be around next semester.

"Disciplinarian Chris" is a new thing for me, and I've also experimented with purposefully producing moments of anger as a way of communicating my severe disapproval across the language and culture barriers. The strict disciplinarian role is not at all comfortable for me, and especially with the anger, reminding me too much of some of my least favorite moments with Dad growing up.

(To be clear, Dad is a fantastic guy and a great father. And parenting is hard, and Dad's remarkable patience had an explosive temper at the end of it.)

The anger experiments deserve their own post, I think.

Allyson did a number of awesome things during WorldTeach orientation, and among them was teaching us, the volunteers, the same way we were going to teach the students. In one exercise, she gave us fake-people cards, with fictional names, occupations, ages, and cities on them, and then we asked each other questions, like "What is your name?" and "Where are you from?". This is another way to de-personalize the class activity, which has a few benefits:

  • If you're doing something like "describe your house/family," you avoid pushing any emotional buttons around poverty or family deaths or whatever.
  • If you're doing introductions, kids can swap cards regularly as part of the activity, so they don't get bored with saying their own names all the time, and they can think of introductions as chunks of language separate from their own names.
  • It forces them to encounter and pronounce American proper names.
So far I've continued doing introductions with their real names, but I've been startled by how much more interested they are with the fake-people cards. It's a little contrived for them to introduce themselves to their classmates, with whom they spend eight hours a day in the same room. And even the indifferent ones have no idea how to say "Huntsville" or "Schwartz," and they want to know.

The most surprising part came during H, which was the same push-and-pull as G: Rodolfo, who's not jump-up-and-dance eager (he's 15, what do you want?) but does concentrate and work really hard, said, "Teacher, this is a good class."

I barely knew how to respond.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Easter Island flights: language matters

I'd thought about going to Easter Island during my winter break next month (I have 2 weeks off). It's closer than usual, and supposedly not too expensive to get to: a few hundred dollars out of Santiago. Except, when I checked the LAN Airlines site, it quoted me US$2000 to get there. I can spend 3 weeks living well in Argentina for that.

Tonight I checked again, this time selecting "Chile" instead of "USA (English)." The results, on the exact same website (http://www.lan.com), in Chilean pesos, were...US$1500 cheaper. And there are more flights available.

Okay, then.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

never a dull moment

This week never really had a chance to get off the ground. Anna was here last weekend, so I was cranky going into Monday, and then the Monday through Wednesday shenanigans went down. I did actually teach on Thursday, but then on Friday, I noticed Marcela wasn't in the teachers' lounge before my one class (B). No one had seen her, so I figured maybe she was sick and hadn't told me. When the period started I stopped by B's classroom (remember, except for me, the kids stay in their classroom and the teachers move around) and...it was deserted. The chairs were up on the tables, no signs of life. I thought they might be on some kind of field trip or something, which would be weird, but whatever. I went to the inspector's office.

"Liliana, where's primero B?"
She looks at the schedule. "They're with Marcela."
"No, they're not. The classroom's empty, and no one's seen Marcela today."
"Oh. They must have left, then."

Friday's B is always a little antsy, because English is their last class. So, lacking Marcela, they just bailed for the day.

See what I mean about routines being difficult here?

I had the usual one person for English Workshop, and then I headed over to Vina to meet Steve, Allison, Corrie and Brandy for a bit. I went with Corrie to help her buy a new laptop, and back at Starbucks the others had made friends with an American girl and her Chilean professional magician boyfriend, who was doing really excellent close-up card tricks. And then. THEN.

I finally found a capoeira class, where people actually show up and it doesn't happen way up in the hills on the other end of town. It was awesome. It's so much fun.

Now, I find its martial value...questionable.

This is just the best of several YouTube videos along those lines. It's not hard for me to see brutally effective aikido responses to capoeira movements. But physical conflict doesn't seem to be the point with capoeira: it's more about connection, rhythm, movement, and community. The movements are familiar, because similar things have crept into my aikido falls over the past few years as I've gotten stronger and more flexible.

I'm sore and satisfied enough today that I bailed on going to Santiago to do aikido. Yay.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

mid-week check-in

This morning was supposed to be mellow, with C taking a test, and while they did that, I thought I would finesse the plans for G, H, and the English Club. Except, surprise! Some of the class needed to stay in their classroom to finish the prep for their acto, and did I have stuff I could do with the remainder? Who were, of course, not quite the usual Wednesday group, so they're not all at the same place, and the chemistry was different.

Daily life here resists finding a routine.

It's not been one of those enjoying-teaching weeks, which is okay. Anna's visit made me more conscious of how much energy I'm putting into making things work as it is; which is to say, all of it. The reason I watch TV and eat cookies when I get home is because that's what I have space for. I could stand to socialize a bit more, especially with Chileans, and I need to direct some more effort toward lesson materials prep. It's especially hard to find energy for socializing, because I spend my entire day dealing with people, often in challenging Spanish, and after that I mostly want to wander off into some cool, shaded little hole and not talk to anyone.

Some things about me are changing, and others aren't. But what do I know? Someone once asked a teacher at Zen Center what happens when we sit zazen, and the teacher said, "You can't possibly know."

I'm not really happy with the lesson I'm teaching this week, but I'm still dealing with the tail end of my cold, my girlfriend just left the continent, bitch and moan, bitch and moan, I haven't taken the hours to fix the lesson even though it's entirely in my power to do so. I'm short-changing both me and my students, in a way. Then again, I'm not pushing myself beyond my ability to manage my mood, and that's good for everyone, too. Is that, in fact, more important?

Ain't nothing simple, eh?

I miss aikido. I may take a bus in to Santiago on Friday afternoon, train at Aikido Hakusan, train again midday Saturday, and then come home. That somewhat optimistically assumes that after a couple months of sporadic exercise and a week of being sick, I'm in good enough shape to do consecutive two-hour classes. Aim high!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

when to take advice

I only had one class today, since Marcela kept the second class to work on an acto they're responsible for in the coming weeks, so after my one class finished their test, I took off wandering. I haven't spent much time in the far west/south end of town, since it's harder to get to and I've been under the impression there's not much there.

My impression was correct. I traipsed around the Old Port area for a while and except for seafood restaurants, there's no reason to go there. And travelers are universally warned to avoid the area after dusk, usually more because of sailor bar-fights than anything else, though since it attracts tourists for some reason, there's a lot of petty theft there as well.

I started wandering uphill from the Iglesia de La Matriz, because the area behind it looked intriguingly decrepit. I figured it wouldn't be nice or anything, but that at midday I'd be fine.

I walked past a kind-looking woman selling candy, and when I'd passed her and was about to enter the next street uphill, she called me over.

"Where are you going?"
"Dunno, just walking. Thought I'd go up there."
She shook her head. "Alone? No."
"No? Bad?"
"Always wear your backpack in front, and nothing in your pockets." [I've never brought myself to do this.]
"It's dangerous up there?"
"It's complicated. There was another young foreigner, who got beat up."
"Like, flaite? Or something else?" [Flaite is a rich word that covers all kinds of petty criminality and poor taste.]
"But I shouldn't go there."
"Definitely not. They'll rob you, and maybe beat you up."

She wasn't very urgent about it, but she was very earnest and well-meaning. It wasn't a hard decision to go a different direction: Chileans are notorious for telling you everything is dangerous, but the universal warnings about Valparaíso don't come from nowhere. And I'm not the guy who's determined to go down that dark alley no matter what new information comes in.

"What's that, you say? That sketchy-looking neighborhood is actually sketchy? Well, I mean, I'm almost there anyway, I might as well keep going. Thanks, though."

I went and had coffee at my favorite cafe instead. Much easier.

post-weekend teacher thoughts

I was pretty cranky on Sunday evening, resenting school for making me take Anna-visiting time to get lessons ready for Monday. I was also cranky on Monday, getting up early to waste valuable Anna-time teaching lessons I didn't want to teach.

And I didn't have to! Every class gets a test this week. We split up the classes anyway, I assume to make it a bit less likely that they'll cheat off each other, both with seat spacing and with a smaller group that one person can actually watch. Cheating isn't a big deal in Chile generally, with nothing like the vicious opprobrium we give it here. My school, INSUCO, is a highly academic school and treats it more seriously than most, but that means doing anything about it at all. My co-teacher Marcela told me that if she sees a student copying (judged by their looking at another student's paper) once during the test, she takes some points off, and the second time the student gets a zero for the test.

By comparison, at my high school and college, cheating usually involves failing the class, and a second offense probably gets you kicked out.

So I spent four classes yesterday, and one today, watching my kids take this test. And it's too hard for them! They're supposed to conjugate present-tense verbs they don't know the meanings of, use possessive adjectives they can't remember, answer questions about a passage they didn't understand. (They did practice that, seeking out keywords like "they live" and seeing "Barcelona" close enough in the sentence to figure out that the characters live near Barcelona. Is it useful? You decide.)

They didn't understand the instructions, either, which I find sort of puzzling since Marcela explained it to them in native Chilean Spanish. It may be that she doesn't check for understanding, so they're not being constantly assessed, and they're in the habit of just not listening to her, because it's not necessary. (They also don't have to talk in her class, another reason they can get by without being involved.) I took a few minutes with a whiteboard marker, and after a couple of classes, I found a way to get the instructions across, including re-activating some of what was on the test. It felt weird to be going over the test material right before the test, but as I ended up telling one class in response to their barrage of questions, "I know it's really hard, but we can't learn everything on the test in five minutes." If I gave it to them right then and they understood it well enough to retain it for the 45 minutes of the test, then...honestly? That'd be awesome.

It's a strange sense of helplessness. The kids and I get along well, and I care about them and their learning, but I'm not in charge of it. It wasn't my test, and it wasn't a test I would have given them, on material I wouldn't have taught them quite the way it's been taught. My teachers always used to say that if most of the class fails the test, clearly it's the teacher's fault, not the students'. Now I know what they mean.

I was trying to think of ways I could help them with the stuff they're learning outside my class, or reinforce it. How can I do present-tense conjugation in a communicative way, so they actually learn it? I'm not sure what I can do in an hour a week, at least right now. Maybe in a couple of weeks? But what's really possible, with their level of English and their level of focus?

I wonder how much what I'm teaching them actually contributes to their academic success, but here we're back to moderating my expectations of what I can actually accomplish here. It probably doesn't help me (or them) to think in terms of their success in a radically different foreign educational system: I'm here to teach basic communication in English.

I certainly have enough work to do already, but I wish I could wave my magic wand and help them learn more.